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Why won’t British Airways refund your seat reservation fees when you cancel a flight?

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I thought it was worth taking another look today at one of the most egregious money-making schemes pursued by British Airways – the refusal to refund seat reservation fees if you cancel your booking.

This was a hot topic before the pandemic, but went away for two years because – under the ‘Book With Confidence’ covid guarantee – BA was fully refunding what you paid, including seat selection fees. (The money was ring-fenced for paying future seat selection fees, but at least you got it back).

‘Book With Confidence’ is no longer offered on new bookings, so your seat reservation fees are back at risk.

BA seat reservation fees

What originally kicked off our campaign on this was a reader who cancelled two Avios seats in Club World to the US.  All of his Avios and other charges were refunded, less the £35 per head administration fee, as usual.

However, British Airways refused to refund £500 of seat reservation fees.

Can you really spend £500 on seat reservation fees for a couple?

Unfortunately, yes.

I just did a dummy booking for Heathrow to San Francisco next January.   As you can see, for someone without British Airways Gold or Silver status or the oneworld equivalent, if you want to sit on the top deck of the Airbus A380 by the windows it will cost you £122 per person each-way – a total of £488 return.  Bargain.

This is dynamic pricing so the sum will go up nearer departure.

British Airways seat selection fees

There are two issues here, I think: is it made clear that your reservation is non-refundable? and is this ‘fair’?

Is it made clear that seat reservations are non-refundable?

British Airways has made some improvements to its wording since we first started highlighting this issue. When you go into ba.com to select seats, this is what you see (click to enlarge):

The terms and conditions are not shown, but require you to click a hyperlink.  This is not ideal, but probably acceptable. 

Under the old version of ba.com, you were shown a summary of the T&C with a further click required to see the full version. Unsurprisingly, this ‘summary’ did not include the key point – that your fee was non-refundable in virtually all circumstances.

Things have now improved in terms of clarity. When you click the ‘Terms & Conditions’ hyperlink, you are taken immediately to the full T&C document. The bit on ‘no refunds’ isn’t at the top, but it is there if you scroll down.

Regardless of the T&Cs, is this ‘fair’?

You might say ‘it doesn’t matter if it’s fair’.

Except, under UK contract law, it does.

There are lots of pieces of regulation which could come into play here such as the Consumer Rights Act 2015, the Unfair Contract Terms Act 1977, the Unfair Terms in Consumer Contracts Regulations 1999, the Sale of Goods Act 1979 and the Supply of Goods and Services Act 1982.

Here is a very concise summary from the Government’s own website:

Businesses can keep your deposit or advance payments, or ask you to pay a cancellation charge, only in certain circumstances:

If you cancel the contract, the business is generally only entitled to keep or receive an amount sufficient to cover their actual losses that directly result from your cancellation (eg costs already incurred or loss of profit).

Businesses must take reasonable steps to reduce their losses (eg by re-selling the goods or services).

Non-refundable deposits should only be a small percentage of the total price.

Cancellation charges must be a genuine estimate of the business’ direct loss.

A good base line is that a consumer contract can only be imposed if it is ‘fair’.

It is difficult to see how retaining a payment of £500+ for seat selection is ‘fair’ when the airline can cancel the underlying seats without penalty and suffers no loss, especially if the seat is cancelled well before departure.

Seat selection fees also appear ‘unfair’ in terms of the ‘power’ given to each party.  British Airways, according to the small print, is free to throw you out of your allocated seats for any reason it wants.

Intriguingly, if British Airways upgrades you, you don’t get a seat refund.  It is difficult to imagine a court agreeing with that, especially if you paid for seats purely in order to be together but – due to the upgrade – you were separated.

In the case of an Avios redemption – or a fully flexible cash ticket – the airline is willing to refund the flight.  It is therefore difficult, in my mind, to put together a ‘reasonable’ justification for keeping the seat selection fees.

Is it worth fighting this if it applies to you?

If you are impacted by this, your options are to take British Airways to CEDR arbitration (here is our guide on how to do it) or, failing that, to MCOL / Small Claims (here is our guide on how to do that).

The bad news is that I know that some readers have lost their case at CEDR when trying to do this. This is because the arbitrator is not empowered to look at whether BA’s actions break consumer laws. They only look at whether British Airways has broken its own terms and conditions – which it hasn’t.

Here is an actual quote from a failed arbitration claim

Here is a quote from a CEDR arbitration decision refusing to order BA to refund seat selection fees:

Whist I recognise the passenger deems this provision unfair, I am unable to make a determination as to whether the same is unfair, binding, acceptable, balanced or not to the detriment of the consumer. Should the passenger be unsatisfied with my ruling, he is free to reject the decision and and to negotiate a settlement with the airline or to pursue the matter elsewhere should he wish to do so, including to dispute the validity of the abovementioned provision (or the airline’s terms and conditions as a whole) before a competent body or court.

Even if you win at CEDR or MCOL, these cases do not set legal precedent.  Settlement usually comes with the requirement to sign a confidentiality agreement, so it cannot even be publicised.

It would require a full court hearing to take place before legal precedent was set, as happened in – for example – Jet2 vs Huzar, the case which set the precedent that mechanical failure was not an excuse for not paying EC261 compensation.

Until someone does that, however, British Airways will carry on attempting to extract large sums for seat selection fees on cancelled flights.

The only good news is that, with the new Club Suite, the seats are created more or less equal and there is very little justification for spending money on a reservation.  Even if you end up not being able to sit together, other passengers should be more willing to move onboard to accommodate you as they would not be worse off.


How to earn Avios points from UK credit cards

How to earn Avios from UK credit cards (October 2022)

As a reminder, there are various ways of earning Avios points from UK credit cards.  Many cards also have generous sign-up bonuses!

In February 2022, Barclaycard launched two exciting new Barclaycard Avios Mastercard cards with a bonus of up to 25,000 Avios. You can apply here.

You qualify for the bonus on these cards even if you have a British Airways American Express card:

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There are two official British Airways American Express cards with attractive sign-up bonuses:

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You can also get generous sign-up bonuses by applying for American Express cards which earn Membership Rewards points.

EDIT: Until 25th October 2022, there is an exceptionally generous sign-up bonus on The Platinum Card. You will receive 60,000 Membership Rewards points – double the usual amount – and £200 to spend at Amex Travel. You need to spend £6,000 within six months to earn the bonus.

American Express Preferred Rewards Gold

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We recommend Capital On Tap for limited companies. You earn 1 Avios per £1 which is impressive for a Visa card, along with a sign-up bonus worth 10,000 Avios.

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You should also consider the British Airways Accelerating Business credit card. This is open to sole traders as well as limited companies and has a 30,000 Avios sign-up bonus.

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American Express Business Gold

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Click here to read our detailed summary of all UK credit cards which earn Avios. This includes both personal and small business cards.

Comments (102)

This article is closed to new comments. Feel free to ask your question in the HfP forums.

  • SamG says:

    Could be worse, I had to pay again on Turkish Airlines when I changed flights on the same day!

  • TimM says:

    The general principle of consumer law as enacted in the UK is that contracts not individually negotiated must not disadvantage the consumer compared to the contract not existing. Almost all large organisations T&Cs are therefore illegal, including BA’s. There is no effective group challenging them in the Courts though – it has to be done, case by case, by individuals once aggrieved.

    I have long toyed with the idea of having my own T&Cs, along the lines of not retaining my money for any service not provided and a reasonable fee per case for me having to enforce them, and then referring to them with every singe transaction.

    BA are clearly on the wrong side of consumer law and must be challenged via MCOL in the first instance.

  • Mayfair Mike says:

    Madness paying for seats. There aren’t any bad seats in club or 1st unless you are really pedantic. I couldn’t care less if Im sitting by my wife either. What’s the neediness of some couples who can’t be separated for a few hours 🤦‍♂️
    Personally I’m pleased BA don’t refund it…effectively subsidises the less needy and less pedantic fliers!

    • Rob says:

      Your wife may not say that when she sees you sharing one of the double bed middle seats with a younger, attractive potential alternative ….!

      • Ian says:

        I don’t think she’ll care. She’ll just be glad not to have to sit next to her plonker husband for a few hours.

    • TimM says:

      Yes but it is not madness paying for an extra legroom seat in economy, especially if tall. I must admit to being a tall, economic pedant. However, it is only my tallness that makes me pay for the extra legroom.

      Once, of course, extra legroom seats were kept for the tallest people in the check-in queue, free of charge, as part of the professional consideration of the check-in staff. A different era, unfortunately.

  • Steve says:

    I’m currently in dispute with BA as they charged my BA Amex card for seats that didn’t pull through to the booking for my sons. On mine and my wife’s it should behave been free but they failed to add tier points and avios from a previous trip. In my opinion if my bum is not on the seat then they will refund. Its also very annoying that to get any satisfactory response you have to email CEO Sean!

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